An impressively fearless performance against Arsenal brought Dominic Calvert-Lewin to the attention of the wider public, but after scoring the winning goal in a World Cup final, his star has risen further.
His first cameo appearance in the Premier League came in a game where Everton played aggressively, and the youngster’s style fitted perfectly, but it was something of a turnaround game for Ronald Koeman’s short tenure at Goodison Park.
Despite losing the Merseyside derby to a late Sadio Mane goal in the following game, the victory over Arsenal showed that Everton were finally heading in the right direction, displaying a stronger midfield and high pressing game that hadn’t been seen for weeks.
Indeed, before beating the Gunners at home in December, the Toffees had won only one Premier League game since mid-September. It’s easy to forget the depths of the poor performances in that period, and the nadir was a 5-0 defeat away to Chelsea in November. Beating Arsene Wenger’s side really was a watershed win.
But Calvert-Lewin’s arrival onto the pitch for the final 11 minutes shifted something of a change in Ronald Koeman’s approach. After Christmas, Everton started to field more young players, and the successes of the likes of Tom Davies have shown that to be the right move.
Every football fan adores watching their team’s academy graduates form part of the core of a winning side. For Everton fans this season, that has added a satisfying edge to what had been a frustrating season.
To come seventh after the last two years of failure under Roberto Martinez certainly marks an improvement, and the goals conceded tally also improved, showing a strengthening of arguably the weakest area of the team. At the same time, though, keeping hold of a player like Romelu Lukaku was always going to be difficult if Champions League football wasn’t achieved, and the Toffees finished a long way from that.
Losing the best players in the team won’t help their chances of closing that gap next year. And so there’s a sense of pessimism and potential mediocrity, which is tempered by an equally palpable sense of optimism at the job that Koeman is doing, especially with the young players coming into the fold.
It’s hard to get away from the idea that Everton are stuck in seventh place with no hope of leaving it. But it’s also easy to forget just how much this team has improved, and how exciting their future could be.
This summer, there’s a similar optimism taking place around the entirety of the English footballing world. With the successes of the U20 side in reaching the final of the World Cup – an achievement not to be understated given that this is only the second time at any age group that an England team has reached a final of a World Cup – an entire nation finds itself in a similar position to Everton fans right now.
England’s performances in the last major tournament were so far below expectations as to be almost depressing for the country. Now, performances seem to be picking up slightly, even if the national team is a long way from being able to compete at the World Cup next year. A lot like Everton in the Premier League, they find themselves in a sort of a no-man’s land, caught between the best international sides and the rest.
But it probably shouldn’t be surprising that the current Everton side should feel like the barometer of this broader phenomenon in English football. In the U20 side performing so brilliantly in South Korea are five Everton players, more than from any other club.
These are exciting times for Everton specifically, but with the likes of Dominic Calvert-Lewin being given a chance not just by England’s youth setup, but also by his club manager in the Premier League – where he made 11 appearances and scored his first goal in a 4-0 win over Hull City – it contributes to a feel-good factor, even if league position alone wouldn’t necessarily point to optimism.
In a Premier League era where results matter above all else, and even winning competitions like the FA Cup and Europa League are only considered valuable when they come attached to Champions League qualification, that might be a very important state of mind to have.
Unlike other clubs who spend millions of pounds on youth academies only to spend more bringing established players who stunt the growth of the youngsters, Everton’s policy of actually giving youngsters like Calvert-Lewin a chance is not just refreshing, it’s of vital importance.
It’s no coincidence, then, that Everton have provided the successful England U20 side with more players than any other club, and it’s probably no coincidence that the Toffees are one of the few clubs who can actually feel optimistic for next season despite reports that they are about to lose their best player to Chelsea for a monster fee.
Maybe then Calvert-Lewin and his England and Everton colleagues will get even more of a chance next season.